Being a sustainable engineer

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Vaguely interested in saving the environment with your engineering skills, but don't know how? Neither does Matt Ritter, but he's decided that it would be a good time to find out. Come join him on his quixotic quest! (For history, see BaSESpring2009)

Background and Description[edit | edit source]

Being a Sustainable Engineer was a STU course in Spring 2009. It is now being continued as a seminar series.

The goal is to learn how to approach sustainability as an engineer and entrepreneur. Many students are interested in joining the field, but don't know how it works day-to-day, or about the wide range of opportunities available in the field. I hope to have a speaker each month to talk about how they got into sustainability, and what sort of challenges they tackle each day. Additionally, I'd love to talk about why some green technologies have succeeded or failed, and have discussions about what to expect in the future.

For example, what's a big reason you don't see more solar concentrators like the one on the right?

Is it because they take up too much space? Nope!

Is it because those mirrors are so expensive? Nope!

One of their biggest costs is actually water use!

Like when they have to wash the mirrors?

Wrong again!

Washing the mirrors only accounts for 1.5% of their usage. The rest is used simply cooling their heat engine by evaporation, because the plants are necessarily situated in hot, dry climates that suck at convection. So one of the most important technological breakthroughs for solar energy could be a cheap, large-scale cooling apparatus for these situations. Who knew?

But what really killed this technology was the misapplication of government subsidies intended to promote green energy, which scared away a large investor and bankrupted the promising company instantly. This 1990 solar concentrator company, LUZ, was the topic of my independent study, and I'll cover the whole story in class. Examples like this pop up again and again, so I want to discuss the whole picture, including financial, social and governmental issues.

Seminars[edit | edit source]

Hosted by an outside industry speaker, professor or student presenting their research.

For example, last year the Senior Engineer at GreenMountain Engineering, a mechanical engineering consulting firm that specializes in sustainable technologies, talked about how he went from a BA in English in California to his current position in Boston.

If you are an Olin student who wants to talk about a research project or internship you did, send an email to, and I'll be happy to find an audience for you. If you know someone that you can convince to give a talk, please email also.

Feedback and Reflection[edit | edit source]

Periodically taken via email and awkward lunchtime conversations

Archiving[edit | edit source]

Each talk will get its own summary page on this wiki.

What is a Good Seminar?[edit | edit source]

Here's a vague outline

  • Background- what got you interested in sustainability? What did you want to be as a kid? What did you love in school?
  • Career – Where did you work before your current position? Did you like it? How did you find your current position?
  • Daily Life- What’s it like in your position? What sort of skills come in handy? What sort of person seems to like it? What kinds of projects do you work on?
  • The future- Will there be a need for many more people in your position? What do you think is the Next Big Thing in your field?

Things that I would be excited to learn in a seminar (feel free to add!):

  • What it's like to be an engineer at a normal company who's trying to push them to make some green changes
  • How to convince people to buy a product that's sustainable, despite higher price or other undesirable attributes
  • What sort of companies, besides the obvious solar-type companies, you can work at and be doing green projects
  • What sort of special skills are required to consider yourself a 'sustainable engineer'

Also, we'd love to get companies to present about how great they would be to intern at, and accept resumes.

Participants[edit | edit source]

If you'd like to receive 1-2 weeks advance notice about seminars and help decide on good times just sign up for our email list: Otherwise, I will send an email to carpediem a few days in advance. Please let me know if you are planning on coming to a talk so that I can arrange for cookies.

Past Speakers[edit | edit source]

  • Matt Ritter: Green entrepreneurship and the art of couch sleeping
  • Matt Stanberry from Navigant: Sustainability consulting
  • Brandon Stafford from GreenMountain: The career of a green engineer
  • Domenic Armano from Johnson Controls: Building sustainability
  • Sam White from Promethean Power
  • Eric Munsing '08 from PE Americas: An Olin alum's path to sustainability consulting
  • Christie Lee '07: Green Consumer products
  • Ron Guerriero: Green energy business plan competitions

What Do You Want to Learn About?[edit | edit source]

Fill this space with topics you would like to learn about. Maybe someone knows a lot about it.

  • Why do big companies decided to go green? Are they serious about it?
  • Is the offsetting of your emissions with carbon credits a cop-out, or effective investment in the future?
  • How does a sustainable engineer's job differ day-to-day from a normal career path?
  • Are there entrepreneurial opportunities that don't require $100 million up front?

Suggested Reading[edit | edit source]

Blogs[edit | edit source]

Grist Overly optimistic articles intermixed with some real gems- sort of like popular science for green issues

Brandon Stafford's personal blog Extremely insightful articles. If you don't understand, it was probably a joke, or Assembly

Books[edit | edit source]

Collapse We don't really hear about civilization collapse, except for the Romans. Turns out that it happens a fair amount, and many of them can be traced to environmental degredation

Periodicals[edit | edit source]

The startling power of efficiency This whole concept that capitalism naturally stamps out waste is demonstrated to be pretty idealistic

PDFs[edit | edit source]

Saul Griffth explains what sacrifices you'd have to make to achieve carbon sustainability- it's a whole different lifestyle

Sustainability in Construction